Politics of Teaching

By Ohmann, Richard | Radical Teacher, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

Politics of Teaching


Ohmann, Richard, Radical Teacher


Is progressive education progressive? What kind of a future does it have? I will approach these questions by looking very briefly at the politics of rebellion and reforms since 1965 in post-secondary education (other essays in this issue focus on K-12), at what is left of those reforms now, and at the conditions for change in the time to come.

By "politics of teaching," then, I mean relations between and among the individuals, groups, b; and social roles that are involved in formal teaching and learning--for instance, in the conduct of a credit-bearing college course. Some of these relations are built into the institution. An instructor (sometimes more than one) supervises the work of some students over a specified period of time. The instructor, an employee of the college, is paid to do this. As customers, students pay for it to happen. The instructor has a credential that qualifies him or her to teach a subject and rate students' achievement. The students have been admitted to the college and enrolled in the course. Some body of faculty members has approved the course. And so on.

Other relations--an infinity of them--are like rules. The syllabus typically makes some of them explicit: attendance requirements; due dates for papers; a schedule of tests, exams, problem sets, oral presentations, lectures, and the like; standards to be applied in judging the work of students. Many rules are improvised along the way. Many others (including who sea the rules and how) are conventional, and often beneath conscious awareness: e.g., how a class begins and ends; who can be where in the classroom; who can talk when; who can introduce a topic or terminate a discussion; whose voices carry authority; what kinds of talk are in and out of bounds; whether students speak only to the instructor, seeking his or her approval, or respond to one another, too. You or I could extend this list indefinitely.

To understand it as a list of political as well as of pedagogical relations will not seem strange to most readers of this magazine, and I will take only a moment to say why I favor extending the core meaning of "political" in this way. First, the people taking a college class, though not its citizens, do for a term or a semester, into a small system of governance where power is exercised, members have certain tights, laws are made and enforced and broken, disputes are resolved, and so on. Second, pedagogies convey lessons about governance that may influence the way students later act as citizens, and what sorts of politics will win or lose consent across a whole society. A single course will rarely be so consequential. But the politics enacted in an academic field, in a whole curriculum, in higher education generally, and of course in K-12 schooling, may significantly shape the way a generation does politics in the conventional sense, later on.

I know, I know: educators often hugely overestimate the effects of what we do. Compared to what kids learn about authority, power, rights, and freedoms, from church, from commercial culture, and above all from family, what they learn in school and college may be less than decisive, and what they learn from pedagogy only a small part of their whole political socialization. Teaching has content, too, after all, and it may be possible to instill democratic beliefs through a pedagogy of fear, or raise up a generation of monarchists using the methods of Summerhill. But if pedagogical relations have political consequences at all, they are worth taking seriously for that reason, as well as became they make a difference in how well students learn.

From time to time, on grounds both educational and political, activists and reformers have objected to practices of teaching that seemed pointless, rigid, stupefying, oppressive, invidious, and so on. One such period of rebellion began around 1965 in American universities. Pedagogical discontent rode in with the student power movement and the vague but pressing demand for "relevance" in college courses. …

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